Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Response from Jeanette Mott Oxford, Candidate for State Senator, District 5

1.    What do you view as the key role, and/or attributes needed for this position?  What experience/attributes do you have that qualify you for this position? 

My experience/expertise: I have been a member of the House of Representatives for the past eight years, but also was a public policy advocate and organizer on Missouri issues since 1991, making me well acquainted with how to move an idea through the cycle from first draft to “Truly Agreed and Finally Passed” legislation and then into implemented policy. (The job isn’t over once a bill is passed and signed.) I directed a statewide anti-poverty organization from 1991-2000. I was interim director of a campaign finance reform organization in 2000-2001. I organized with community-based smokefree alliances from 2001-04.

The roles of House member and Senate member have similarities, but also differences. Both House and Senate members should:
•    Be responsive to their constituents – whether they are weighing in a piece of legislation or asking for help with a snarl involving state government. (For example, I helped a constituent who was a veteran returning from Iraq iron out a problem with the MO Department of Revenue so that he got the tax refund that he was due.)
•    Show up at committee hearings prepared – by reading the bills and talking with experts on topics the bill addresses - and ready to improve the bills that come before the committee. (An improvement can mean helping them die in many cases these days.)
•    Engage in the debate process on the floor, bringing information about the bills out in the open, given that most House and Senate members did not serve on the committee that heard that particular bill so trust the committee members to do some educating.
•    Keep constituents informed about what’s happening in the General Assembly through electronic newsletters, websites, town hall meetings/constituent coffees, neighborhood association newsletters, etc. (I have written a monthly column almost every month since being sworn in.)

The role of senator differs from that of House member in some regards. There are 163 House members, making it difficult to build a relationship with those House members with whom you do not share a committee or an office. By current rules, House members are limited to 15 minutes of speech on a particular bill (unless called upon by another House member through inquiry, etc.). Debate in the House is frequently cut off by calling the Previous Question. With 34 senators, all senators interact in a much more direct way. Senators are more able to secure a hearing on their bills, even if in the minority party. The Previous Question is called “the nuclear option” in the Senate because it is so seldom used. Knowing when to filibuster and when to compromise is one of the most important decisions that a senator, especially one in the minority party, will face. I once read a quote that went something like this: “In the end, you will not be known by the purity of your actions, but for the integrity of your compromises.” I think those are guiding words for a Senate member.

As to attributes that I have that make me a good legislator: honesty, openness, persistence, intelligence, compassion, courage, and commitment to hard work and service. I am principled, persistent, proven, and progressive.

2.    Why do you think you are the best person for this position?  What differentiates you from your opponent(s)?

My record as a strong and consistent voice for social justice is known by those who watch Missouri politics closely. Many constituents tell me that they have never met an elected official who is more accessible and responsive than I. Those who do not follow politics closely may learn about me by speaking with my House and Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle and by doing Internet searches regarding my record – and I encourage this kind of scrutiny regarding all three of us in the Senate 5 race.

I originally had other plans for my life upon reaching my House term limit, but late last year many persons came to me to encourage me to run for Senate because they were concerned about the incumbent and the announced challenger. I began meeting elected officials to see if they knew of others who planned to run, but in time it became clear that the incumbent, Sen. Robin Wright Jones (RWJ for short throughout the rest of this document), and my House colleague Rep. Jamilah Nasheed (JN) were the only persons who intended to file.

I worked hard to help RWJ get elected in 2008 because I was convinced she was the best alternative in that race and because I valued my friendship with her. Unfortunately since that time, several of my constituents have expressed anger about my encouraging them to vote for her as they found her office unresponsive or their expectations regarding her unmet. They had hoped she would be a champion on their priority issues, but did not see evidence that she was doing so. There also have been a number of stories in the media involving a lawsuit or her financial reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC). The $12.30 that RWJ had on hand at the end of the first quarter in 2012 according to the MEC website is evidence that our incumbent senator has lost her viability.

JN and I often co-sponsor each other’s legislation and have been allies on some issues (reducing the dropout rate, winning local control of the St. Louis Police Department, etc.). However I am unable to support JN in this primary because she often votes against the best interests of Senate 5 at key moments. For example, JN was the deciding vote, casting an Aye with the Republican Caucus, to end campaign finance limits in Missouri, even though they had been adopted by a vote of the people by a majority of over 70%. The Riverfront Times contains a story about JN in which she clearly states that her reason for casting that vote was to punish her Democratic colleagues for failing to support one of her bills earlier in the day. The report “The Color of Money” traces the way that the power of unlimited giving hurts People of Color and other communities with high poverty rates. (To learn more about “The Color of Money” see: Senate 5 deserves a senator who will not put revenge ahead of good public policy.

JN also voted to overturn Gov. Nixon’s veto of the re-districting map. Nixon vetoed the map because it deprived Missouri of a third Democratic seat and made us likely to be 6-2 for the Republicans in Congressional seats instead of 5-3, even though our population is roughly 50-50 when it comes to party affiliation. With the GOP threatening to end so many programs that progressive fought for decades to win, Pres. Obama needs that third Missouri Democrat to fight to save Social Security, Medicaid, the Voting Rights Act, and so many other vital programs and policies.

Presently there is only one “out” gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (LGBT) senator in Missouri – Jolie Justus from Senate 10. Jolie will be term-limited in 2014. My election will ensure that the MO Senate has an out member, and this is very important. The most effective way to break down prejudice is through repeated positive interaction with the object of one’s prejudice. I can offer those repeated positive interactions with my Senate colleagues, and that can help us move forward on key issues like the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Act. (Presently LGBT persons have no protections in human rights code around employment, housing, and public accommodation, and bullying of those who are LGBT or perceived to be LGBT is woefully common in our schools.)

Finally there are only four Missouri senators who consistently vote to keep abortion safe and legal. JN has moved from identifying as “pro-choice” to “pro-life” during her time in the Missouri House. This was confirmed in a meeting with the Organization for Black Struggle that we both attended in 2011. With bills offered every year to push government intrusion into our relationships with our family members, faith leaders, and physicians, the position of the Senator from District 5 on this issue is crucial.

3.    What do you feel are the most pressing issues currently facing this office and what plans do you have to address these issues? (please be specific)

The inadequacy of Missouri’s budget and the high unemployment rate are perhaps the most pressing issues facing our state. The crime rate in St. Louis is partially driven by the way we underfund mental health to a scandalous level. Persons with mental illness self-medicate with illegal drugs and become a danger to our neighborhoods. We are currently four billion dollars below the Hancock revenue caps, which is a sign that we are failing to invest adequately in the common good (K-12 education; higher education; mental health; public health;  infrastructure – like roads, ports, bridges and public transportation; affordable housing, etc.). By investing in the common good, we would create jobs, and those jobs in turn would create other jobs. (For example, when union employees go to work building or renovating affordable housing or improved facilities on our campuses, they spend more money in the local economy, leading to additional hires.)

Here are some areas of legislation where I have been a sponsor, co-sponsor, and/or advocate:
•    Creating a more modern, adequate, and fair individual income tax system. (We haven’t changed our tax table since 1931, so our top tax bracket starts at $9,000 per year of taxable income – a great injustice.)
•    Expanding affordable and high quality childcare and early childhood education.
•    Re-gaining control of the local police.
•    Fighting for the right to emergency contraception following a rape (which also prevents an abortion since no pregnancy would result).
•    Defending the very successful historic preservation tax credit from annual attacks.
•    Raising Missouri’s tobacco tax (which is currently last in the nation at 17 cents per pack when the national average is $1.46).
•    Lowering class sizes for our public schools.
•    Universal health insurance coverage.
•    Gaining legal equality for LGBT persons.

4.    What three issues are your main priorities and how will you guide them?

The three issues where I spend the most time currently are:
•    Tax and revenue reform – like 1) Updating our current individual income tax system. Those in the bottom 60% of earners in MO all pay more than nine percent of their incomes as state and local taxes. The wealthiest one percent of Missourians, those making over $412,000 per year, currently pay 5.4% of their incomes as state and local taxes, including help they get from federal offsets. 2) Raising our tobacco tax – which is also good health policy, not just a revenue producer. For example, pregnant women already know they need to quit, and when prices go up due to a tax hike, they often do quit. 3) Supporting the Mainstreet Fairness Act which levels the playing field between our bricks and mortar stores in Missouri and internet companies like Amazon.
•    Education, including the right to affordable and high quality early childhood education which is a key to children starting school ready to learn.
•    Civil rights (including equality for racial/ethnic minorities, women, LGBT persons, and others disadvantaged by oppression). Unfortunately many of my colleagues fail to understand that oppression still exists in our society and that it has two sides – 1) oppression disadvantages some people, and 2) oppression advantages others. In addition, some colleagues have really skewed perceptions of who is experiencing discrimination. For example, Rep. Wanda Brown introduced a bill adding gun ownership to human rights codes as a protected class. We asked whether there’s been a case of a person in MO not being hired or being able to rent an apartment because they own a gun, and Rep. Brown admitted she knew of no such cases. Yet the House passed her bill.

I guide these issues by working closely with grassroots organizations. I file legislation that moves the issue forward, but I also write letters to the editor and editorials. I speak on panels at public events. I educate those who write me on a related issue. (For example, almost every time I receive a letter or e-mail asking me to protect funding for the arts, veterans, seniors, etc., I respond with a letter or e-mail educating about commonsense approaches our state can take to reach adequate funding for all these essential programs. We don’t have to cut aid to the blind to fund higher education like we did in the MO House budget process in 2012. With political courage we can respond adequately to both needs.)

5.    How do you plan to address the schism between Republicans and Democrats in Jefferson City?  How will you accomplish things as a member of the minority party?

People on both sides of the aisle value a colleague who is honest, dependable, and prepared. I have been very successful in forging relationships of trust and reciprocity with GOP members. For example, in 2009, I filed a bill to close a loophole that let some insurance companies refuse to cover adopted children. The GOP Speaker of the House did not assign my bill to committee, and it died. So I recruited a GOP member who was very different than me on many issues to be lead sponsor in 2010. I chose Therese Sander, a colleague whose major reason for running for office was to further limit abortion. I knew that she valued adoption as an alternative to abortion, and she did indeed agree to sponsor my bill. We worked together and got it signed into law.

Rep. Largent of Children and Families has treated me with respect because I treat him with respect and communicate with him regularly. On April 18, my bill to update the income guidelines for subsidized childcare was voted Do Pass by Children and Families by a vote of 11-2 (with six GOP members voting to make childcare more accessible to low-wage workers).

6.    How do you plan to increase available jobs in the area and state? 

One of main reasons that unemployment is so high in Missouri is that we have been failing to invest in the common good. We are presently $4 billion below the Hancock revenue caps – a sign of how far off pace we are. (Remember that we gave money back to the taxpayers due to Hancock in the 1990’s.) When we invest in the common good it creates jobs. For example, the University of Missouri-St. Louis needs some new buildings as well as renovation of existing structures. Union labor would be involved in much of that work. When those building trades workers are employed, they spend money in the local economy in ways that create other jobs.

I also believe that we should continue the historic preservation tax credit. According to the Alliance for Investment Jobs & Preservation, the historic preservation tax credit has created more than 40,000 jobs in Missouri and produces four dollars of private investment for each dollar of tax credit issued.

Finally St. Louis has many advantages for new businesses including easy access to ports/rivers, roads, and airports so that products can easily be shipped to market. We have many institutions of higher learning and many world class medical facilities. Investment in research and development and in innovations  in medicine and science would bring many jobs to our region.

7.    How do you plan to address the tension between rural and urban areas of the state?

We need to put on events that bring Missouri legislators from rural areas and small cities to St. Louis to meet our citizens who work so hard to improve our region. Having grown up in a predominantly white rural county in southern IL, I know the lies that I was taught about St. Louis City when I was a child. The way to break down prejudices is through repeated positive interactions with the object of one’s prejudice. Rural legislators can come to care about St. Louis Public Schools when they meet the beautiful, bright, zestful children of those schools and their parents. They can come to be champions for New Americans (more than 100 languages are spoken in the homes of St. Louis Public Schools students) when they hear of the torture and war trauma that brought immigrants and refugees to the U.S. and learn of the hard work that family is now doing to become employed and naturalized.

In my experience, rural and urban legislators find it easier to work together than suburban legislator and urban (or rural) legislators. Perhaps this is due to historic patterns of “white flight” from urban areas. Some of the most bigoted and ill-informed pieces of legislation that I have seen over the past eight years came from suburban colleagues, not rural colleagues. My rural colleagues face the same issues that I do – high rates of poverty, challenges around affordable housing, inadequate public transportation, and lack of living wage jobs. I have found ways to work together with rural legislators on bread and butter issues, although sometimes they will not join me on “social issues” (LGBT equality, for example). Still rural legislators often don’t make those social issues their priority, focusing more on the job needs and health needs of their constituents.

8.    What broad-based, stable source of revenue would you recommend to fund quality, public services if both individual and corporate taxes were cut?

I don’t agree that we should continue to cut individual and corporate taxes. Instead I believe we should reform them to make them more modern, adequate, and fair. I have explained some of what I would do on these issues above, but here are more details:

I am sponsor of a bill that would set Missouri’s tobacco tax at 75% of the national average. This recognizes that the Missouri General Assembly seldom has the courage to update numbers that need updated. As the national average rises, our tobacco tax would keep pace. (As I said above, we are at 17 cents per pack, and the national average is $1.46. My bill would produce an additional $580 million at current smoking rates, but also would lower smoking rates, according to evidence from other states – especially among teens and pregnant women.)

9.    In light of the pending outcome of the Turner v. Clayton case regarding transfer of students from unaccredited school districts to accredited districts, what would you suggest as a solution for maintaining the viability of St. Louis Public Schools?

St. Louis Public Schools needs experienced teachers who have special training in working with children affected by poverty and disadvantaged by oppression rooted in race, class, gender, and other human characteristics. As a former faculty member for the Dismantling Racism Institute for Educators, I know how important it is to have high expectations for every child.

We need to maintain student to teacher ratios that offer the best chance of success. This includes moving students who are repeated discipline problems into programming that addresses their issues so that they do not continue to take time and attention from the other students.

We need to communicate the success stories that are there at SLPS. Many of our public schools have higher MAP scores than nearby charter schools, but the public often does not know about the successful SLPS schools that are there.

Finally we need programs that address the social problems that create barriers for so many children in St. Louis Public Schools. For example, teachers and administrators say SLPS children move constantly (not to mention spells of homelessness). Affordable housing that keep families more stable would do a lot to improve education at SLPS.

10.    How can the legislators from the St. Louis metropolitan area work together despite party differences to support and protect the interests of the entire area? (please be specific)

Other regions of the state come to Jeff City and put their best foot forward. They have formed a legislative agenda, and they come work it together. Unfortunately people from St. Louis City often come to Jeff City to attack each other openly. (For example, one side will say “Those people are trying to destroy St. Louis Public Schools” while the other side says “Those people have abandoned Children of Color with low incomes.” Or one side will say “You are trying to steal the police officers’ pensions” while the other side says “You are trying to bankrupt the city.” The language is often stated crudely & violently.)

Representatives from St. Louis County, St. Charles County, Jefferson County, and Franklin County also frequently join in the St. Louis City bashing. As I mentioned earlier, I wonder if prejudices against People of Color, against persons in poverty, against New Americans play a role in all this regional bad-mouthing.

If elected I will urge the St. Louis representatives and senators along with the mayor and Board of Alderman to have an annual summer retreat at which we will work to build consensus around a legislative package for the following January. We would then work with marketing experts on how to move that agenda forward, pre-file bills in December, and put on events January-May that back our agenda.

11.    Do you support or oppose changing the law so utility companies can charge rate payers for construction costs?

I oppose that bill. Missourians voted overwhelmingly against construction work in progress charges, and I stand with them on this issue.

12.    Describe how you work with, or will work with, others to address your priorities.
I treat people respectfully, keep my word, prepare for committee work and debate, and work hard. I build relationships and stay away from political gossip and game-playing. Some cynically believe you can only get things done in Jefferson City through strong-arm tactics and trickery. I have seen those tactics blow up in people’s faces repeatedly (and hurt our City along with the legislator). I believe my way is more effective in the long run - getting to know people, treating them kindly, and looking for common ground.

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